Shane McGuigan wins the ball against Sean O' Dea and Tommie Childs in Derry's 2019 win at the Gaelic Grounds. (Pic: Gareth Williams)
ALLIANZ NFL DIVISION 3 SEMI-FINAL
Derry v Limerick
Saturday (4.00) – Carrick On Shannon
Ref: Noel Mooney (Cavan)
Everything comes down to Saturday. Everything.
The return of Gareth McKinless. Conor Glass swapping the AFL for the red and white of Derry.
The blistering attacking game that ripped Longford and Fermanagh to pieces. The grit of standing in the face of a Cavan comeback. Odhran Lynch's late save to deny Mickey Graham's men a third goal and Shane McGuigan elevating himself even higher in the best forwards in Ireland category.
Being able to start 14 players in all three games so far and building a level of consistency that has tongues wagging across Ulster and Derry fans beginning to hope again.
It all comes down to a Saturday in Carrick on Shannon and a familiar face - Limerick. When Derry sunk to Division 4 in 2019, it was their win over Limerick that took Damian McErlain's side off Ireland's bottom rung.
While Rory Gallagher has never 'coached or managed' against Limerick, his trusted selector Ciaran Meenagh was on the Derry management team in the 2019 promotion season.
Two years on and Billy Lee's side once again stands in the way of Derry making a step into the top half of Ireland's footballing landscape, somewhere they expect to be. And over 14 days and three group games, their form suggests nothing else but a climb.
Chrissy McKaigue and Rory Gallagher are similar in many ways. They shoot from the hip, with an obsession that is about nothing else other than winning.
The overused cliché that Derry's next game was their most important was offered in Gallagher's direction on the sod of Kingspan Breffni was met by the quickest and non-ambiguous reply.
“Absolutely” he replied. And from witnessing Gallagher's sideline demeanour in recent weeks, it hard to image him letting his squad get carried away in any shape or form. He demands so much.
“Our championships begins now,” was McKaigue's mantra, with a sunken body language borne out of his feelings at letting Cavan back into the game, not once but twice.
Brendan Rogers was forced off with a hamstring injury as the game ticked into the last ten minutes. A scan last Tuesday revealed a 'small tear' and the Derry boss said Rogers has reponded 'really well' to the rehabilitation work.
“The scan told us what we thought at the time, that it was a two or three-week injury,” Gallagher told the County Derry Post yesterday. “I think it will be 'unlikely' that he'll (Rogers) play than 'likely'. We'd love to have him, but we'll have to monitor him this week.”
Gallagher confirmed that Padraig Cassidy was back in 'full training' last week.
“Clucky (Conor McCluskey) and Karl (McKaigue) have moved through the gears. Shea Downey was a bit late (back to full training) and they have all had another week under their belt at a good level, so it is very positive as regards the rest of the squad,” he said.
With Cassidy's expected return to the team, it should see Paul McNeill revert back to corner back, alongside Chrissy McKaigue and Paudi McGrogan.
When McKaigue went off with a blood injury against Cavan, Gareth McKinless moved back momentarily with Ethan Doherty switching to wing back.
While it would be an option with his versatility, moving McKinless back to a man marking role would be an unlikely move. He has transformed the shape of Derry as a team. Chrissy McKaigue is now a marker again and McKinless offers so much going forward.
Glass has doubled back as the defensive midfielder and even Emmett Bradley has dropped deep to pick up ball in Derry's fluid counter-attacking approach. Conor Doherty also has the energy level to get forward and support the runner.
The pattern to Limerick's games has been based around around a nip and tuck first-half before hitting the gas in the third quarter. Derry have been similar, but where Limerick have been conservative in the first-half, Derry have been wasteful and kept teams in the game from missed chances.
Iain Corbett came on at half-time in their opening game against Tipperary and changed the whole dynamic of the game. They played with a higher tempo, but it was Corbett's pin-point pass that led the way for Danny Neville's game-changing goal.
A glance at their defeat to Offaly and victory over Wicklow brings a trend to how they found their goals. Three times they found the net and it was an incisive run along the endline. One led to a Neville goal at the near post against Wicklow. The other two were squared passes which were finished home at the far post.
It will be familiar to Derry. Their video analysis will have flagged up how Ben McCarron allowed Padraig Faulkner in along the narrow side to provide the assist for Martin Reilly's goal.
“We trained on Saturday and Sunday at the weekend and we are just looking forward to it now,” said the Derry boss.
If Derry can get the match-ups right, it will go a long way to limiting any Limerick attacking threat. While Chrissy McKaigue may seem the obvious maker for Neville, the Limerick man has tended to roam and it could pull Derry out of shape.
The other factor in the game is the choice of venue and Carrick on Shannon was a wild card. Both counties, having played only one home game in the group, opted not to toss for a choice of venue and the CCC went for the Leitrim venue.
There is a perception that it plays much tighter than Kingspan Breffni and it's narrower than Owenbeg, where Derry's attacking game against Fermanagh was built around width. Conor Glass, Ciaran McFaul and Emmett Bradley played right out on the touchline to leave the middle open for searing runs through the centre.
If Derry can master this, it will be an important way of getting them off to the electric starts they have enjoyed so far.
And when they are not running the ball, Ciaran McFaul's range of passing has been a pleasure to watch and his telepathic relationship with McGuigan. After a series of decoy runs, McGuigan's final run finds space in the faith that McFaul's dinked pass will be on the money.
The most pleasing aspect of their win over Cavan was how they saw out a game Derry teams in the recent past would've lost.
Derry's future is about momentum. As Rory Gallagher pointed out himself, the county have not won enough games that matter. Saturday is one of those games. It is all on the line.
If Derry can get the right balance in the absence of Rogers, they'll make the final step into Division 2.
The story so far....
Derry 0-21 Longford 0-5 – Pearse Park
Derry 5-13 Fermanagh 0-9 – Owenbeg
Derry 1-16 Cavan 2-11 – Kingspan Breffni
Players used: 24
Players starting games: 16
Top scorers: Shane McGuigan (2-20, 1 pen, 9f), Niall Loughlin (1-10, 6f, 3 '45') and Emmett Bradley (0-6)
Played all 210 mins so far (excluding stoppage time): Odhran Lynch, Emmett Bradley, Ciaran McFaul, Conor Glass and Shane McGuigan.
Limerick 1-13 Tipperary 0-14 – LIT Gaelic Grounds
Offaly 0-16 Limerick 1-11 – Tullamore
Limerick 2-19 Wicklow 1-12 – Aughrim
Players used: 26
Players starting games: 17
Top scorers: Hugh Bourke (2-17, 10f, 1m), Danny Neville (2-7) and Josh Ryan (0-4f)
Played all 210 mins so far (excluding stoppage time): Donal O’Sullivan, Sean O’Dea, Brian Fanning, Michael Donovan, Darragh Treacy and Danny Neville.
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